Jul 22, 2018

Why I Never Moved to Portland

By Sarah Kobos / strongtowns.org
Why I Never Moved to Portland

I was always going to move to Portland. For years, that was my escape plan.

Back in the mid-nineties, I moved home to Tulsa from Colorado because my folks were getting older and I wanted to be nearby.  I also had two aunts who lived on a farm about an hour and half away, and it was a pleasure to spend weekends helping them with the cattle and the land—a nice respite from five days of computer screens and corporate life.  Still, Oklahoma was the place where I grew up, not the place I felt most at home.  My plan was to stick around as long as I had old folks to take care of, and then launch the escape pod for lovely, liberal Portland, OR.

It didn’t work out that way.  But I got something much better by hanging around.

Back in the nineties, Tulsa wasn’t exactly a showcase.  A couple oil busts and a lot of corporate mergers had packed a wallop to the city’s self-esteem.  The can-do spirit of the early oil pioneers had fizzled as we watched home-grown corporations, one after the other, get bought out and moved to Houston and other hub cities.  People who stayed had their reasons, but “it’s a nice place to raise children” is not exactly a siren’s song when you’re 27, single, and gay.

In those days, Tulsa was a place where downtown workers would get in their cars and drive to lunch because there were so few options available in the city center.  Ironically, lunch was the busy time.  Most restaurants closed at 2pm.  I can remember exactly three places you could go for a drink after work within walking distance of the tallest building in the state.

I hadn’t found my place, I hadn’t found my people, and I wanted out.

But somewhere along the way, I got involved. The real beauty of mid-sized cities is that if you’re passionate and willing to work, you can jump in and have an impact.  No one cares about your net worth; they care about your work ethic.  You can serve on non-profit boards, volunteer your time, or simply become an advocate for change, working to solve problems that have a tangible impact on your community.  And if you show up willing to work—if you’re sincere and rational and come prepared—it won’t be long before you’re on a first-name basis with the mayor and members of the city council.

Cycling advocates perform site visits and offer input on street design plans in Tulsa, OK.  (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

My advice for young adults everywhere is this: pick an issue you’re passionate about and volunteer. (Here’s advice from Kea Wilson on how to do just that.) You’ll meet people who care about the same things, and more importantly, you’ll be DOING SOMETHING to make the world a better place.

For me, I can remember the night that changed my life.  I attended a meeting of the Tulsa Sierra Club, at the time a somewhat demoralized assembly of aging hippies, concerned about the environment but outgunned by the powerful oil interests that run the state.

The speaker that night was a local developer who was the first person I ever heard talk about urban design and walkability.  Having lived in historic neighborhoods in Lexington, KY and Colorado Springs, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  He was describing the kinds of places I loved, but he wasn’t talking about the past.  He was talking about creating new places that were great for people—how intelligent infill that respected traditional building patterns and walkable, human-scaled design could revitalize a destitute area near downtown.

I knew that I loved old neighborhoods with cool architecture where I could walk and bike everywhere I needed to go.  It just never occurred to me that you could advocate for creating new places that met these criteria.  At the time, I’d never heard of Congress for the New Urbanism, or the Urban Land Institute, or form-based codes, or really thought about the role of city planning and urban design.  I didn’t know anything except that, during the presentation, it felt like my hair caught on fire.

This one presentation by a single individual was the impetus that changed my life.  It set me on a path of community advocacy focused on active transportation, downtown revitalization, historic preservation, and, eventually, Strong Towns.

Members of Tulsa’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advocacy Committee working with neighbors on a traffic calming exercise. (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

Along the way, I found my purpose, my people and my reason for staying in Tulsa.

Now, when people ask me about Portland, I wonder: What would I do there?  How would I spend my time?

I love Portland for the quality of life that’s built into the city’s bones.  Portland oozes great urban design and neighborhood character.  Small blocks, connected street grids, walkable neighborhood centers, terrific bike and transit infrastructure, appreciation for historic buildings and architecture…  And, while Portland’s not without its problems, so many of the things I spend my time fighting for, they’ve already got.  They don’t need me.

Here in Tulsa, we’re working on it.  In the past few years we’ve updated our comprehensive plan and our zoning code, with an emphasis on adding walkable, mixed-use design back into the regulatory toolbox (traditional building forms were essentially illegal under the old zoning code).  We passed a voter initiative for dedicated transit funding along with Bus Rapid Transit in two critical corridors.  Our Planning Commission unanimously approved the GoPlan, a bicycle/pedestrian master plan for the entire region. And downtown has seen close to a billion dollars in private investment over the past decade or so.

The energy is palpable as young people, for the first time in my life, are returning home to start businesses and invest their energies in their hometown.  They’ve been to the big cities—the glamorous but unaffordable meccas—and they’ve realized the potential that exists right here at home.  They’ve discovered the perks of a low cost of living, and how it opens up a lot of room for creativity.  They’re starting to see the impact you can have when you create something new from the ground up in a community that craves and respects your contributions.

As one of our city councilors likes to say “You can move to New York or San Francisco and work for someone else, or you can come to Tulsa and create something all your own.”  I love that.  There’s so much potential here.  We’ve made great strides but we still have a very long way to go.  There are so many problems that need to be solved, so many battles still to be won.

So I guess I’m not going anywhere.  Everyone needs a hobby, right?

(Top photo by Sarah Kobos)

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